RALEIGH — North Carolina’s budget, already seven weeks late, plodded closer to completion with Tuesday’s announcement that Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and the legislature’s GOP leaders have agreed on how much will be spent this year.
McCrory and legislative leaders said they have decided on a budgeted amount of $21.74 billion, finalized after a breakfast meeting at the Executive Mansion, according to McCrory’s office. The announcement means budget subcommittees for government spending categories could soon be negotiating in earnest on line-item funding expansions or cuts for education, public safety and dozens of state agencies.
“This agreement is the result of ongoing dialogue during the last several weeks,” McCrory said in a release. “We remain committed to working with the House and Senate to find commonsense solutions that create jobs, strengthen education and fund critical infrastructure in North Carolina.”
The two-year budget was supposed to be done by July 1. The legislature has approved two temporary spending measures since then. The second one expires Aug. 31. Top budget-writers offered no promises Tuesday about finishing the budget by that date.
The agreed-upon figure is closer to the spending level sought by Senate leaders and McCrory in recent weeks, or about $21.65 billion. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, has said that the 2.7 percent increase over last year’s spending would be in line with inflation and population growth. The Senate’s original budget grew by less than 2 percent.
The House had proposed spending $22.16 billion, or a 5.1 percent increase over last year.
“We knew we had to find some common ground in the middle and I think that’s what we did with this particular number,” said Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, the House’s top budget writer, argued more spending was needed to catch up on services following the Great Recession. Dollar has been the target of recent mailers from Americans for Prosperity state chapter blaming him for a “wasteful state budget.”
Dollar told reporters later Tuesday the final bottom-line spending figure was always going to be a compromise. But with $420 million less to spend compared with what the House initially wanted, Dollar said, “what the House was looking at in terms of raises and in terms of investing in education will not happen.” The House offered 2 percent across-the-board state employee raises, for example.
Tuesday’s announcement sheds little light on how big policy differences remaining in the competing House and Senate budgets will be resolved. For example, the Senate wants to reduce funding for thousands of teacher assistants by $300 million, and redirect much of the money to hire new early-grade teachers. House Republicans have said they’ll fight to preserve the assistant funding at last year’s levels.
Some school districts approaching the first day of classes have laid off assistants or alerted them to possible terminations based on the budget outcome. House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, reiterated his proposal to give block grants to school districts so they can decide how to distribute funds between hiring teachers and assistants.
The budget delays mean the costs of operating the General Assembly session — including daily expense checks for legislators and longer working staff — come to more than $1.3 million through Tuesday, based on legislative figures.
The amount is small compared with the budget size. The temporary spending measures in place since July 1 largely have directed spending to continue at last year’s lower levels, save for a $100 million-plus cash injection to prepare for higher school enrollment and higher early-career teacher salaries. So a delay in passing a final budget could be described as savings the state tens of millions of dollars.